In the skeletal sweep of a blacked tree's hand, she traced the shape of a wing like leather. All of the forest was as if a fire had swept through it years before, and the land had given up its green. But there were the mushrooms with their moist, orange hearts fluttering in ridged mouths. From a brittle glass tree hung dark globes, smooth as onyx and as bright. Her hand strayed. She only meant to cup it.
"Eat nothing that grows here."
The huntsman had not spoken in an hour. She supposed it an hour. Time had a way of slipping from her. She measured the minutes by the light in her cell and the migration of the shadow across the stones.
"I'm not a fool," said Snow White.
She withdrew her hand. Without her skirts, it was easier to walk through the bogs, to stretch her legs out over those great, black spaces and touch land again. What little charred grass there was snapped beneath her worn shoes like bits of dry hay clenched in a child's hand. She'd a memory of the stables; then it was gone.
The huntsman gestured again, marking another patch of mire. He'd run out of the pungent spirits shortly before even what small conversation he'd offered before ran out, too. Sweat left thin trails through the grime on his face.
"I know how to spot them now," she said.
He offered her his hand. His fingers were thick, callused, same as his broad palm. Snow White tightened her own hand about his wrist and hopped over the deceptively still stretch of spongy earth. The white horse had floundered in sucking mud.
"How to spot what?" The huntsman wiped his sleeve over his face.
She kept pace with him, though his legs were long and his stride inconsiderate. "The bogs."
He slung his arm out. "We're in the bog. All of this is the bog."
"Then the pools," she said.
She looked up again to the sky. Everything was grey again; everything was always grey. The clouds, the air, the suggestion of the sun. The trees reached out to the sky with long branches like curling fingers, like the hands of a dead man lifted to an unknown dawn.
The silence swelled between Snow White and the huntsman. Perhaps it was not such a surprise. It had swelled between them at the first. She did not think him a man given to great talk, and she had heard, or not heard, her own tongue dying in spurts without someone with whom she might converse. Greta had asked what would be done to her, and Snow White had not known what to say. She knew so little.
Something small with wings flitted between two trees and thus out of sight. The huntsman gave his hand to her again. His leather jacket parted; the wicked edge of a long blade flashed and then, as she took his hand, it vanished again behind his coat. A part of her was yet a mouse, fearful of the world. This part of her whispered that he might have changed his mind.
Snow White licked her lips. Her mouth was dry, her lips cracked. Thirst and hunger were ever present, gnawing at the guts of her. The huntsman's head was bowed as he walked, his hair stringy with dirt and thick, even so. As a child she would have run from a man who looked as he looked. Now, her feet pinched and she knew her shoes, given to her some years before by a sympathetic guard then later impaled upon spikes set along the castle's wall, to be too small.
"Has the dark forest always been here?"
The huntsman looked briefly over his shoulder. His eyes were blue, small in his face. He did not stop walking. She did not wish to stop. Snow White thought she would walk all around the world rather than lie down upon even the softest bed and there be still.
"You do not know," said the huntsman.
He faced forward again. They had cleared the wetness again, and the trees thickened about them. The lower branches, he swept aside with his arm and allowed her to pass. Under one such branch, Snow White paused: small mushrooms, thrumming near to their feet.
"I see them," said the huntsman at her shoulder. She glanced; his eyes were not on her, though his breath was warm on her cheek.
On unspoken agreement, they walked carefully together about the mushrooms. The huntsman moved to position his bulk between her and the fungus; the height of him in such quarters startled her. She was accustomed to isolation, her rare visitors even more rarely pleasant. Her heart was racing so that she felt ill.
As he walked on, he looked back to her and said, "Do you wish to stop?"
"No," she said. She felt at her chest, her heart swollen in her breast and the embroidery of her old gown soaked through and ragged.
"Good," he said. "I've no wish to carry you. Careful."
More pools, these ones bubbling softly. An odor like rot permeated the air. Snow White covered her mouth with her hand, squinting as her eyes watered; then the huntsman handed her a swatch of dirtied cloth and mimed for her to wrap it about her face.
"You never answered," she said to him. They'd crossed half the length of boiling tar. His arm was sturdy beneath her hand. "How long the dark forest has been here."
"Years," he said shortly. "After the queen."
She left it at that.
Her eyes streamed. More than sweat washed his face now. Each step was a slow one, and she found after a time that he had shortened his stride to allow for her. Something like gratitude bit at her; too, so did a slow and burning sort of anger. Was she angry with him? The queen? Herself, perhaps. No—it was that cell. Six strides across. Eight strides down. The grey sky so beautiful to her she had some mornings simply placed her face as close as she might to the one window allotted her and sucked in air. Sometimes when it rained, the water had flooded her cell so that she couldn't crouch above the chamber pot without soaking her ankles.
I want to cross this field on my own, she thought. I want to know how to go through the forest on my own.
"There is no shame in needing help," her mother had told her gently once, when she had lost her temper with William for offering to help her with her embroidery.
Still, she ached.
Before her, the huntsman swore and staggered on his toes: a bit of earth had broken away and he pitched towards the tar. First the right foot then the left dropped. Snow White grabbed for his arm, thrown savagely out; she hooked her own arms about his tensed biceps, drove her heels into the loamy soil, and pulled back as hard as she could. Earth gave way beneath her. His hand scrabbled for purchase in her shirt front. His fingers were blunt, hard as they dragged at her skin; his nails were dirty and clipped short. She saw in her mind Finn's pale hand sliding up to cup her breasts.
The sky was grey above her. The huntsman was not Finn, and Snow White did not know the way out of the forest. A little shadow flickered against the clouds, perhaps a raven with a white breast, and as Snow White clung to the huntsman and pulled him from the tar, she thought: Please.
They fell together to the earth, Snow White and the huntsman. He landed with his back upon the ground and her hand flying up to cup his head. Her knuckles stung where they bit into the soil and met rock. She stared down into his eyes. The skin about them was creased as he squinted into the light and then to her. He smelled overpoweringly of dirt and drink and other filth, but he did not stink of death. The cloth had slipped from her mouth. His eyes were blue, and his hand was still knotted in her shirt.
Snow White looked away and made to rise. He let go of her. The tightness of her shoes made her wobble as she stand, and he offered her his hand even as he stood.
"I'm all right," she said. She did not mean to be sharp.
He accepted it and bent instead to feel at his boots. Cooling tar layered the toes, the heels, the wrinkled leather at the top of his foot; the boots had burned. His shoulders bent, spreading out. Did she touch one to give comfort? Snow White lingered, not knowing. She had forgotten.
"Are you hurt?"
The huntsman shook his head. Still bowed, he turned his head to look up at her. The vague bleariness that had haunted his face had faded some. He looked brighter, she thought. Perhaps it was only that he sweated less.
"I'm unhurt," he said. He straightened. "I cannot say the same for my boots."
What could she say? Whatever it was she did not know it. The smile he gave her was grim, and then he looked away from her. Always they looked away from each other. She did not wish to do so. She looked to him and not away, and after a moment he set his shoulders and raised his chin and looked to her again. His eyes were lowered; then, they rose.
"Thank you," he said.
What could she say? Snow White nodded.
The silence was easier after that. Why? She didn't know. She had forgotten how friendship was born, how trust rose up out of mutual feeling. But she knew the steadiness of his hand beneath hers and the length of his stride, and for every step, she matched him. Twice, she caught him looking back to her, and the second time she smiled, a pinched thing that made him turn away, his head bowed, dirtied blond hair limp against his throat. She hadn't meant to turn him. It was only that she did not quite recall how to smile.
"We're nearly there," he said.
Snow White turned her face up to the boundless grey sky, overcast but so vast. The trees grew sparse. The grass at her feet was stronger, greener. The forest thinned. As they came to a cold stream that cut through the forest, the huntsman gave his hand to Snow White. His palm was dirtied, his fingers rough. So was her palm; so were her fingers. She took his hand.